Helping a Fearful Shiba Inu Learn to Trust Humans Again

By: David Codr

Published Date: December 20, 2015

Hiro and KaliHiro (left)  is a one-and-a-half year old Shiba Inu who is fearfu of people.  He was adopted a month ago and warmed up to the family’s other Shiba Kali (right), but cowers and runs away from his guardians any time they try to pet or interact with him. Even placing a simple collar on Hiro causes the dog to shut down and shiver in place.

When I arrived for the session, Kali met me excitedly at the front door while Hiro was nowhere to be seen.

While Kali did show a little bit of territoriality in her behavior, it was an action that her guardians engaged in that troubled me the most.

It will be extremely important that the guardians stop providing their dogs any attention or affection any time that they are in an excited state of mind. This will be even more important for their interactions with Hiro.

I asked the guardians to remain in the kitchen while I went upstairs to meet Hiro myself.

When I initially met Hiro, I made sure to keep him on my right side and avoided giving him any direct eye contact. I also used smooth, gradual movements that included a number of pauses.

Loud noises, quick movements, direct eye contact or a front facing approach can be interpreted as aggressive or confrontational by a dog. That’s the last thing I wanted to do with Hiro.

Because the dog wasn’t even accustomed to wearing a collar, I fastened a leash into a lariat and then started to approach the dog. I crouched down into a kneeling position and then paused a moment before I slid a couple of inches to my right which moved me closer to the dog.

I paused for a moment to allow Hiro time to process, and then I slid a couple of inches closer to him in the same fashion. I continued approaching Hiro this way until I was about a foot and a half away from him.

I held it out on my right side and offered the lariat for him to inspect. At this point Hiro had backed his way into a hallway corner and his pupils were dilated. He was repeatedly licking his lips to communicate to me that he was stressed out so I paused again and waited for him to relax a bit before taking the next step.

After slowly offering and then slipping the leash over the dog’s neck, I gently lead him back downstairs.

Because his guardians had been attempting to pet him while he was in a fearful state, I knew I had to help him move forward by trying something different.

I went through a few different techniques before I found the right approach to block the dog from engaging in his flight response.

It took a minute or two but eventually you could see some of the tension drain away from the dog’s body. He finally sat down with his back to me and exhaled a little bit before relaxing a little bit more.

The idea is to help the dog practice being near humans while nothing bad happens and he remains in a calm state of mind. At this stage, all I wanted was for the dog to learn that being near humans doesn’t mean anything or register anything to be fearful of. It will be important for the guardians to not try to pet, talk to, or even look at the dog while they’re practicing this technique.

Once the dog no longer tries to flee and shows interest in the humans by approaching them with his nose, then they will be ready to take the next step.

If either of the guardians needs to get up and leave the room, they should do so in a gradual and smooth way so that the dog sees them moving and is able to process it without being startled or caught off guard.

Initially I advised them to only do this technique for a half an hour to an hour at a time with each of them at least once a day. After a day or two, they can  start to engage in this activity multiple times a day. It will be important that they give the dog the ability to move away so it can relax in between practice sessions.

As the dog gets more comfortable and relaxed, then the guardians can  gradually increase the length of time the dog stays near them. When you’re dealing with the dog that has real behavioral issues such as Hiro, it’s extremely important to move forward in small steps. You want to build on success and positive experiences.

Because dogs do learn from observing, a great way that the guardians can prep Hiro for this future-petting is to condition their other dog to seek out tactile contact from her guardians.

Usually this is pretty much done automatically as its how most dogs like to interact with us. But in this situation the breed of dog is Shiba Inu, the most cat-like dog there is. If you have ever met a Shiba, you know they can be pretty independent and standoffish.

A great way to condition a dog to want to receive petting and affection from their guardians is to practice a technique that I call Petting with a purpose.

The more that Hiro sees Kali running over and sitting in front of her guardians to receive attention, the more of a positive that activity will seem in the dog’s mind.

The guardians can also help Hiro feel more comfortable by communicating with him using his native language; body language and movement.

By this point Hiro had been laying on the floor next to me for the over an hour. He had progressively relaxed as time went by because I showed him no attention. But now it was time to literally take the next step.

Because even placing a collar around the dog’s neck had resulted in Hiro shutting down completely, the guardians had not been able to walk him since they adopted the dog. He was getting plenty of exercise playing outside in the fenced in yard with Kali, but a walk is much more than a energy draining exercise.

As you can see in the video, Hiro initially tried to stop and shut down every few steps. I continued using the gentle pull-then-relax the leash technique over and over until I got him walking.

I let the dog go pretty much anywhere he wanted as long as he was moving forward. I advised his guardians to initially do the same when they practice this exercise with him in the future. The only exception would be if the dog’s only movement is to try to return inside the home. The goal is to gradually increase the walks until the dog looks forward to the activity.

I was pulling on the leash more than I would have liked, but moving forward is an important part of the rehabilitation so we mustered through. Dogs get over things by literally moving forward, so taking the dog out on the short walks in the backyard is  therapeutic and an important part of Hiro’s rehabilitation.

It took a couple of minutes and a lot of coaxing and patience, but eventually Hiro started to move forward on his own. Once this was the case, I headed back to the deck so that the guardians could take over from there.

It was awesome to see the small and subtle improvements in Hiro’s body posture and movement as his guardian patiently walked him around her yard.  These small victories are the path to Hiro’s rehabilitation.

After a couple of revolutions around the yard, Hiro’s other guardian took the leash so that he could practice leading the dog himself.

As we progressed, I added a number of small variations to the walk. I advised the guardians to continue to add in 1-2 of these unexpected elements to each walk. At first the walk should be limited to a couple of minutes. But as the dog becomes more comfortable with the activity, they can increase the amount of time they practice walking in the backyard this way.

Because of his extremely fearful state, I suggested that the guardians wait until they see noticeable improvements with Hiro in and out of the house before they take him on a walk outside of the backyard.  I also gave them a martingale, no slip collar and showed them how to apply the special twist to the leash to help prevent the dog from escaping the leash.

By the time we finished the session, Hiro was exhausted. This was likely the most human interaction that the dog had ever had. While you don’t want to overwhelm a dog, it is important to gradually push their boundaries a little bit to help them learn that there is nothing to be fearful of. In Hiro’s case, the main pushing will be gradually extending the time he spends with humans.

By simply increasing the amount of time that Hero was asked to stay in the same room with his guardians and roommate, he will learn that being in close proximity to humans isn’t anything to be scared or fearful of.

In time, the play walks around the yard should result in Hiro gaining trust in his guardians as well as getting used to following their lead. The end goal with is to see the dog in a happy, calm and relaxed state of mind. Because dogs enjoyed being outside, these walks are a great bonding activity that will pay long-term dividends.

While we didn’t make as much progress as I normally make on one of my sessions, it’s almost more rewarding to help a dog that is as psychologically challenged as Hiro was.

Living in a perpetual state of fear is it’s own type of torment. While his guardians had the best of intentions by trying to soothe and comfort him by petting, they are now armed with a number of techniques that will help Hiro learn to be comfortable around and eventually trust humans again.

I asked his guardians to check in with me weekly for the next month or two so that I can track his progress.  Small changes and additions to the strategies we applied will need to be added as the dog comes out of his shell.

I’m hopeful that within a week or two his guardian’s are seeing substantial improvements in his interaction and a huge decrease in his fearfulness. It will likely be a series of small victories for Hiro and his guardians, but with patience and gradual practice, Hiro can come back into the light.

While I’m sure a follow-up session or two may be unavoidable, I was pleased in the progress that we made during the session. I’m looking forward to hearing that Hiro is voluntarily spending time with his humans in the very near future.


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This post was written by: David Codr